Pandemonium turned to borderline panic in 1.5 seconds for the Chicago Bulls, as they gave LeBron James just enough time for a miracle, and Jimmy Butler gave him just a bit of airspace on his fadeaway jumper.
After Derrick Rose tied Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Semifinal series with a driving layup with 9.4 seconds left, overtime seemed likely until James’ buzzer-beater tied the series at two games apiece with an 86-84 win over the Bulls at the United Center.
Just as Rose’s shot was a great one by a superstar, James’ was nonpareil, as Butler did everything he could aside from hanging in James’ jersey to contest the jumper from the right wing.
“It was a tough shot,” Rose said. “Jimmy pushed him to the corner, he got a chance to adjust his body and square up. He shot a hell of a shot.”
With that devastating jolt only a few men can provide, the Cavaliers pranced off the court, knowing full well they stole a game they had no business in. James led the Cavaliers with 25 points, 14 rebounds and eight assists in 43 hard minutes.
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“I don’t think there’s any stealing going on anywhere,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. “I don’t think we steal from them, I don’t think they steal from us. These games are hard fought and you have to win them.”
While that may be true, it puts the Bulls in an unenviable position to have to win — or steal — another game in Cleveland in front of that desperate, raucous crowd, having given this Cavaliers team new life.
Of course, it should be said Cavaliers’ coach David Blatt nearly threw away the game with back-to-back critical errors, one that should’ve been a technical foul and Bulls’ ball if the officials caught him trying to call a timeout after Rose’s tying layup.
After an official’s review to determine time and possession before James’ last second shot, Blatt attempted to draw up a play for someone else besides James before the four-time MVP intervened.
“I scratched that,” James said.
Before the crowd’s audible shock and awe could be felt through the building, the Bulls put themselves in position many times to take a stranglehold on this series and send real doubt to the hobbling Cleveland Cavaliers, having a 68-57 lead on the strength of a Tony Snell triple with 42.9 seconds left in the third quarter.
But as has been the case all season long, the Bulls failed to capitalize on what was in front of them — James was struggling with turnovers and then turned his ankle barging into Rose on a fast break, Kyrie Irving’s strained right foot caused him to make just two field goals in 40 minutes, and they held James to a 10-for-30 shooting afternoon on their home floor — yet couldn’t seal the deal.
“We’ve been like that all year,” said forward Mike Dunleavy of the Bulls’ lack of killer instinct. “We just can’t step on people’s throats. For whatever reason, it’s too many stagnant offensive possessions. It’s kind of been our Achilles heel on the offensive end. It’s not surprising. It’s disappointing.”
The Cavs went on a 16-2 run between the end of the third and start of the fourth, missing eight straight shots and allowing their rivals to recover when it was clear they were thinking of submitting to the Bulls charge.
Rose, who was magnificent again with 31 points and four assists on 23 shots, isn’t alarmed by his team’s inability to put opponents away.
“I mean, it’s still a season, we’re still learning,” Rose said. “I’m not concerned at all. We’re a quick-learning team. We’re gonna look at it and make sure we’re prepared for it. It hurts now knowing we had a couple chances.”
The Bulls shot just 36 percent from the field, as Rose and Butler combined for 50 of their 84 points.
Playing without Pau Gasol (strained hamstring) opened up time for Nikola Mirotic and to a lesser degree, Tony Snell, but Mirotic shot one for nine in 18 minutes. Joakim Noah had a couple stretches where he was dangerous on the pick and roll, twice finishing with dunks off passes from Rose and Snell, scored eight but missed eight of his 12 shot attempts.
Still, the Bulls didn’t turn the ball over much (12 times) and crawled back into the game, surviving a J.R. Smith onslaught that saw him score 11 of his 13 in the fourth. Timofey Mozgov was solid with 15 and nine rebounds with three blocked shots, one of the few Cavaliers James could count on, as they shot 39 percent, leaving the door open for one final Bulls push.
Rose scored a quick five, attacking and hitting his long range jumpers, to pull the Bulls to within three before forcing a James turnover near midcourt as he swung through a double-team to nail Dunleavy with an elbow with 14.3 seconds left. Rose attacked again and set the United Center afire with his layup, setting the stage for James.
“You got great players going at it,” Dunleavy said. “Just the nature, it’s the way this works, it’s gonna be hard to get any separation.”
Then James got separation — albeit slight — returning Rose’s favor and now the Bulls must pick themselves up again or else they’ll be facing elimination come Thursday.